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More thoughts on composers

Everyone’s been chiming in on composers. I compiled the feedback from Facebook, Twitter, and this post, and it yields a very interesting list. Here, in no particular order, are the names that have been mentioned: Osvaldo Golijov, Ricky Ian Gordon, Adam Guettel, Thomas Ades, John Adams, Arlene Sierra, Jennifer Higdon, Elliott Carter, Kaija Saariaho, Unsuk Chin, Heiner Goebbels, Pascal Dusapin, Thom Yorke, David Lang, Daron Hagen, Louis Andriessen, Michael Daugherty, Hans Werner Henze, Dan Deacon.

We all know the label of “composer of the decade” is kind of meaningless. One commenter over at Sequenza 21 (Andrew Violette, a composer himself) opined that we haven’t heard of this decade’s composer yet because he hasn’t been played enough. It’s certainly true that there may be people who are remembered in 30 years from this decade whom we don’t know about yet, but I intended my question differently: who’s the composer who actually had the biggest impact, made the biggest strides, left the biggest mark on the decade? (Not that I said that explicitly when I framed the question.)
(read more after the jump)

My personal taste would lead me to Andriessen, Henze, or Steve Reich in a heartbeat. And I can see the case for Elliott Carter, whose 100th birthday was definitely a decade-worthy Event (though I think the question of Carter’s actual influence or impact remains open. I’d be glad to hear contrasting views on this). I’d say that of these, Reich had the biggest actual impact on the last ten years. I also considered making a general case for the “class of 37/38”-- this decade saw a wave of much-feted 70th birthdays: Reich, Glass, Tower, Harbison, Del Tredici, Wuorinen, Corigliano. (Martin Bresnick, whose 60th was celebrated with some fanfare this decade, wryly said recently that he kept encountering people who thought he had turned 70 instead.) But I still think the biggest impact of most of the abovementioned composers came earlier.

I was intrigued to see Ricky Ian Gordon and Adam Guettel cited. Both certainly had major works out this decade, with Gordon’s Grapes of Wrath (a work I intensely regret having missed; I was taken with the CD) and Guettel’s Light in the Piazza. Neither, alas, has yet succeeded in redefining the Broadway musical in the way people were hoping they might (along with Michael John LaChiusa) at the start of the decade; but compelling music theater is something that a lot of opera houses struggled to find over the last ten years.

The implicit classical-music-world blinkers one dons in asking such a question was revealed with the name Thom Yorke; Radiohead certainly had a huge influence on all strains of music in the last ten years. [Edited to add: Chris Richards, the Post's pop critic, avers that Radiohead makes great-sounding music but he's getting tired of their message or content. His point touches on one divide between so-called classical music and so-called pop music: classical music is often apprehended, by those who write about it, as being all about the sound, and any social message is often treated as subsidiary to how the music is actually put together. But that's a can of worms for another post.]

As for the idea that the artist of the decade is as yet unrecognized: it’s certainly true that the music we hear in the standard classical music world -- especially from orchestras and chamber ensembles -- is only a fraction of what’s being written, and perhaps not the best representation of the real creative energies that are brewing out there. Writing for an orchestra is a very particular activity: John Adams has embraced it; Steve Reich decided it really wasn’t for him. This is one reason I’ve been so happy with the so-called alt-classical movement: I believe it involves more composers actively involved with the production of their own work, bypassing the standard wait-for-a-commission route entirely, and getting the music out there for us to hear. I hope the hands-on approach continues to grow in the next ten years. It certainly makes for a lot of stimulating variety. But for the time being we can only judge by the composers we know. I also think that whenever those unknown geniuses do emerge, they are seen to have the biggest effect on the decade that hears their music, rather than the decade in which they wrote it.

By Anne Midgette  |  December 23, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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Thanks for linking/mentioning Sequenza 21. Happy Holidays!



Posted by: christianbcarey | December 23, 2009 1:42 PM | Report abuse

A number of composer/performers are having a substantial influence on the classical music landscape by performing and producing their music independently or in collaboration with orchestras and other classical music institutions. Bringing new life and spontaneity to the listening experience. One recent example below by the composer/pianist Donal Fox:

Real Americans
December 2, 2009

"The final piece, and final premiere, was Donal Fox’s "Peace Out," a concerto for an improvising pianist, with the composer at the keys. This is a real gem of a piece, modest in duration but terrifically ambitious in tone and technique and in this performance a complete success. Fox matched Ives in the sense of Americanness of the music, and his is a modern updating, with a a toughness, swagger and jaunty humor that is very much a part of post World War II American culture. The work opens with an intense riff in the right hand of the piano, music which recalls Conlon Nancarrow. When the orchestra joins, the bracing excitement continues. Fox keeps the soloist and ensemble very close to each other, responding immediately and almost antagonistically to each other. The pace is fast, the harmonies pungent and the motion of the music is angular yet not harsh. It’s a kind of Romantic Modernism, highly expressive and even agitated, yet transparent and open about it’s directions. It’s reminiscent of the last movement of the Barber piano concerto, with the piano banging out clusters up and down the keys, but it’s even more aggressive, impassioned and exciting, especially the relentless interjections from the bass, drum and tuba which threaten to beat the music into a halt. Fox builds the second section from a bass line developed out of Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time,” and it’s a pleasure to hear the fragment and an even greater pleasure to hear the imagination and craft Fox uses in forming it into a propulsive, hip foundation. He’s done something that many have tried and few have succeeded at, which is taking identifiable elements of jazz and make an utterly classical music out of them. There’s no stiffness, condescension, nothing arch or cute, it’s the work of a composer who knows jazz and has learned from it but has no intention of turning an orchestra into a jazz band, on par with Stravinsky’s ”Ebony Concerto.“. While he has an excellent, idiomatic blues wail for the orchestra, he doesn’t ask them to sound like a combo or a swing band. The music breaths with it’s own harmonies and own internal sense of rhythm. It also doesn’t depend on an improviser to carry the music, it speaks for itself. Fox is a fabulous pianist with sharp, confident technique and a real idea of what he wants to do, and it appears that he does improvise in short phrases during the course of the first two sections. Again, what he adds is completely idiomatic to the piece itself, seamless in the overall expression and language. The pianist has the most room to improvise in a cadenza which comes prior to the third, and last, section, and Fox maintained his fine balance between jazz information and classical structure and language. His ability to convey ideas and emotions within the limitation of his own structure was deeply impressive – while a jazz musician might use a tune as a foundation from which to break free, Fox used the material of his piece to build and focus his improvisation, just as a Mozart concerto would ask. After the intensity of this music, the final section began quietly, from a held note on the keyboard, and was a simple, lovely lament over a delicate tremolo in the violas. Beginning in extreme activity, the music became so simple as to leave the impression of repose and reconciliation, which fit well with the sense of controlled outrage, even fury, in the preceding music. Superb playing by the orchestra in a challenging piece, and some of the finest composition and improvisation I’ve heard in recent memory."

-- George Grella
Music critic, The Big City

New York Times
December 2, 2009
Anthony Tommasini

"Mr. Fox, a composer, pianist and improviser who deftly draws from jazz and classical contemporary traditions, was the soloist in his intense, episodic 15-minute work. The blazingly scored orchestra part is fully composed. But the piano part, though well plotted, includes swaths of improvised, interactive music ... The piece opens with a fitful section, all gnashing brass, spiraling strings and searing harmonic angst. Mr. Fox’s piano playing, bursting with violent, keyboard-spanning runs, drove the music. A searching middle section quotes fragments of a Charlie Parker blues tune, 'Now’s the Time.' After a steely solo piano cadenza, the piece concludes with a pensive finale based on a descending, and strangely haunting, four-note refrain."

Posted by: Leonellismusic | December 24, 2009 12:44 AM | Report abuse

I can recommend Andrew Violette's powerful, recent song cycles.

Posted by: snaketime1 | December 24, 2009 9:01 AM | Report abuse

Musical developments internationally are asymmetrical; which composers have had the greatest impact between 2000 and 2010, therefore, is perspective-dependent.

If we aren't narrowing the field in any way . . . . for example, if Radiohead and Elliot Carter may be considered beside each other for impact on contemporary music . . . then certainly the composers exercising the greatest impact are those with massive commercial worldwide audiences. Adam Lambert co-wrote "On With the Show."

Elliot Carter's impact may be measured not only by the major-venue, repeat performances his newly-composed works recently have received but also by his influence on dozens of accomplished students including Tobias Picker and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Yet Osvaldo Golijov has sold more CDs than Carter. His music, in a more accessible vein, possibly has had more influence on other composers.

I can live contentedly with the elusiveness of the answer to the question; which composer had the greatest impact on the aughts?

Posted by: ScottRose | December 24, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

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